4. Summary Notes of the 590th Meeting of the National Security Council1

[Omitted here is discussion of the situation in Czechoslovakia. For text, see Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, volume XVII, Document 93.]

Vietnam—The President asked Secretary Rusk, Secretary Clifford, and General Wheeler to brief the group on current Vietnam problems.

Secretary Rusk: In Paris, we have had no response to our insistence on knowing what the North Vietnamese will do if we halt the bombing. In the talks, the North Vietnamese have attacked the Vietnam policy statements of both U.S. political parties. We have not presented our minimum position in Paris, because we want to keep the door open to almost any move which the North Vietnamese may make. So far, the North Vietnamese have been entirely negative but they may not always continue to be. Hanoi must accept participation of the South Vietnamese Government in the negotiations. In the United States, much has been made of the National [Page 11]Liberation Front as representing some of the South Vietnamese people. This is a phony issue. The NLF is not a real government and cannot be compared with the Saigon government.

In Vietnam, political progress has been substantial. The pacification program is improving. Serious efforts are being taken to fight corruption. The elected legislature of South Vietnam is working.

The President: We should be outgoing to the South Vietnamese Senators who are now visiting in the United States. We should spend time with them and be as helpful as possible. Numbers of our Congressmen go to Saigon, are seen by President Thieu, and are welcomed by the Vietnamese. We should take this opportunity to see that their Senators are well received here.

Secretary Rusk: President Thieu has grown considerably during the time he has been President. He is wise, reasonable, and is prepared to go much further than Hanoi in an approach to peace.

The President: If we can stay for a few weeks with our present posture in Vietnam, we can convince the North Vietnamese that they won’t get a better deal if they wait. If we can hold where we are, a break will come from their side. Some of Hanoi’s work is being done for them by people in the United States. Some 1,000 votes at the convention went to a proposed platform plank which called for a change in our policy. Hanoi is not only affected by military developments in Vietnam, but also by Congressional debates. But the military situation is basic.

(The President asked that no notes be taken of following comment which he made to the group.)

We have many irons in the fire and not all of them are in the newspapers. There has been an exchange with the Pope who sent an emissary to make a peace proposal to Ho Chi Minh. Ho turned him down flatly.2 This reveals the present attitude of Hanoi very clearly—directly from the ranking Hanoi leader.

Secretary Clifford: For some weeks we have had reports that Hanoi would launch a third offensive. The North Vietnamese are impelled to try again despite their heavy losses in the Tet and in the May offensives. Even though the level of combat is higher, it is difficult to say whether the third offensive has started because General Abrams’ spoiling operations may have kept the North Vietnamese from carrying out their original plan. General Abrams’ spoiling operations have been very effective. Our intelligence is better and is better used with the result that the North Vietnamese forces have been kept off balance. As an indication of the effectiveness of General Abrams’ strategy, we have received a hard report that the North Vietnamese will try to assassinate him.

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The North Vietnamese face a serious problem. They feel they can’t go back to guerrilla tactics. Probably they will continue for awhile with their present efforts. As a result, both South Vietnamese and U.S. casualties will be higher. The question is whether the North Vietnamese, however, can carry on for very long at the present high rate of their casualties.

General Wheeler: In the view of General Abrams, the third offensive has started. His most recent assessment (copy attached) is that the enemy has four courses of action open to him. The first course, and the one the enemy prefers, would be to continue the war along present lines and at about the current level of intensity. The second course would be to continue fighting but stretch out present attacks over a longer period of time. The third course would be to fall back to only guerrilla activity. The last course would be to propose a cease-fire-in-place. (Tab E)3

A cease-fire-in-place is a dangerous course of action for us. It would mean that we would be giving up a block of South Vietnamese territory to the enemy.

The Vice President: Requested General Wheeler to explain in greater detail why a cease-fire would be dangerous to us.

General Wheeler: The North Vietnamese would hold certain areas inside South Vietnam. It is not like the situation in the Korean War when there was a fixed military line separating North and South. Thus, the North Vietnamese would be in a position to organize politically the areas they held. Access to these areas by the Saigon government would be in doubt.

There would be no problem with a cease-fire limited to an area where military talks could take place.

Mr. Rostow: Rather than referring to a cease-fire, we should use the language included in the Honolulu Communiqué, i.e., total cessation of hostilities.4 Any cease-fire proposal becomes so complicated that it is difficult to see how we could live with it.

General Wheeler: General Abrams is confident that we can handle anything the enemy tries to do to us. We can not only keep up with the enemy but also get ahead of him. General Abrams is right when he says that South Vietnamese units have performed well—some with distinction. The improvement in the performance of the ARVN is a very hopeful sign for the future.

Mr. Rostow: Cited the high North Vietnamese casualty rates (12,000 during the May offensive as compared with 8,500 in August) as proof of the greatly increased intensity of the war, and concluded by summarizing other parts of the Abrams telegram referred to above.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC Meetings, Vol. 5, Tab 72. Secret; Sensitive; For the President Only. Attending were the President, Rostow, Humphrey, Rusk, Clifford, Ball, Nitze, Fowler, Helms, Wheeler, Marks, Thompson, Director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness Price Daniel, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs John M. Leddy, Ambassador to NATO Harlan Cleveland, Smith, Christian, Edward Fried of the NSC Staff, and White House aide Nathaniel Davis. (Ibid., President’s Daily Diary) A full transcript of the meeting is ibid., Transcripts of Meetings in the Cabinet Room.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, vol. VI, Document 333 and footnote 4 thereto.
  3. Not identified and not found.
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, vol. VI, Document 303.